Committee to establish overall mission of athletics

The standing committee on athletics, created at last May’s faculty meeting, is staffed and ready for action this year as it prepares to formulate a mission statement declaring the goals of athletics – at all levels – towards the overall educational mission of the College.

Jay Thoman, professor of chemistry and chair of the athletics committee, said it is important that the statement reflect the needs of the College at not only the varsity level, but also at the PE, JV and club levels.

The implications of the mission statement, according to Thoman, are rather broad. “The statement will establish how you staff athletics, how athletic faculty are evaluated and how funding is allocated,” he said. “We won’t be making any specific recommenda-tions, but will provide concrete guidelines for procedures.”

The committee is comprised of six faculty members, all of whom are appointed by the president of the College in consultation with the Steering Committee. In addition to Thoman, Harry Sheehy, Athletic Director; Dave Johnson, interim associate dean and head coach of men’s tennis; D.L. Smith, professor of English; Cheryl Shanks, associate professor of political science and Elizabeth Brainerd, associate professor of economics are the additional committee members.

Though the members of last year’s ad hoc Faculty Committee on Athletics frequently said they were appointed because of their publicly neutral opinions towards athletics, several members of the new committee have been outspoken about their views.

Sheehy has been a vocal supporter of athletics at faculty meetings and in other public forums, while Shanks has represented the opposite end of the spectrum. In 2001, she told the Record “of course, this isn’t a college. It’s a Nike Camp with enrichment classes” (“Some faculty voice concerns about athletics,” March 13, 2001).

President Schapiro said he believes the members of the committee will move the dialogue on athletics forward in a positive way. He pointed out that three members of the committee – Thoman (swimming), Sheehy (basketball) and Johnson (tennis and squash) – played varsity sports as undergraduates at Williams; two members of the committee, Shanks and Brainerd, come from departments that are disproportionately popular among athletes and the final member of the committee, Smith, is “extremely knowledgeable with regard to a variety of related issues as a result of his service as the Dean of the Faculty.”

According to Thoman, the committee will spend most of its time this year formulating the mission statement, not focusing on analyzing individual teams, a goal last year’s ad hoc committee established for the standing committee. He stressed the Athletics Committee is a policy forming committee, not an investigative one.

The committee will also seek to bring students into the discussion by speaking with interest groups like the Captain’s Council, Thoman said. He said many conflicts arise because the dialogue between students, academic faculty and athletic faculty is often poor.

Meanwhile, Amherst released a study on the impact of athletics last spring similar to Williams’ report. The study said athletes play a slight role in lowering academic standards.

The Amherst committee that wrote the report spent 18 months investigating the impact of athletics through hearings, interviews and studies of past reports.

Last May, Amherst’s board of trustees released a statement on the special committee’s findings.

One of the most important arguments put forth is the College’s need to support “reforms within NESCAC that might serve to halt and/or deescalate the athletic ’arms race’ within our conference.” The conference was created in hopes of allowing small selective schools to have competitive sports programs without jeopardizing their academic reputation, but the report argued that the conference is no longer living up to that standard.The report statesthat the competitive climate in the conference has caused an intellectual gap between athletes and non-athletes on the Amherst campus. The report does not lay out any recommendations for changing the climate in the NESCAC.

One solution, creating a division separate from Div. III for NESCAC schools, is rebuffed by the report. According to the report, the pressure Amherst feels to win is not caused by Div. III, but rather by Williams, its “primary rival.” The competitive level between the two schools would not change due to the creation of a new division.

“Amherst’s primary rival, Williams College, is already the perennial powerhouse of Division III. To the extent that Amherst feels compelled to calibrate its athletic programs by the prospect of defeating Williams creation of a new liberal arts division would have little effect on the College’s competitive level.”

The report also found evidence of academic underperformance among Amherst’s student athletes. Academic underperformance is measured by comparing students admitted with similar high school records and gauging whether they have performed well enough academically to meet the College’s expectations at the time of the students’ admittance. Last year’s report at Williams did not find evidence of any academic underperformance by varsity athletes. The Amherst report, however, found “a statistically significant degree of academic underperformance among the athletes in the classes of 1993-2002.”

The underperformance at Amherst, the report found, is equal to only about a quarter to a half of a grade point on Amherst’s GPA scale (one point is roughly equal to the difference a “B” and a “B+, for instance”). Though the report acknowledged this difference could be interpreted as minor, it said there was actually a significant level of underperformance by athletes as compared to the grades received by their classmates.

For its part, the board of trustees acknowledged there has been tension between athletics and academics for more than 175 years and that such tension is part of “maintaining the proper balance among our ideals.”